1. Alley
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    Alley Member

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    Placing a setting on the map

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by Alley, Mar 5, 2015.

    I very recently realised that my trouble with naming my characters partly stems from the question of where the setting is actually located. I both write in German and in English, and I never used to think about where my settings actually are located. However, I feel a great reluctance to give my German language characters German names, and that's probably in part because somehow they just are not located in Germany, really. That's probably due to the fact that it's easier for me to use my imagination in the context of places that do not form part of everyday life for me, thus offering more novelty and out-of-the-box thinking. Yet my English names always feel slightly shallow or like a mask, if that makes any sense. I think it'd help me a lot to just "take it home" or bind my characters to specific places in order to make them "real".

    So here's my questions: How do you pick your settings? Do you choose a place you know, or like? Do you use the places where you live? Do you think it can be helpful in the beginning to just choose (and name) a real place on a map to substitute for invented settings? And has anybody encountered similar problems when bringing settings and characters together? I'd be very happy about any input. :)
     
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  2. Bryan Romer
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    Bryan Romer Contributing Member Contributor

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    In my case I find the nature of the story and the plot often determine the location and setting. For instance, pirates would be Jamaica and the surrounding region, Victorian adventure would be London, and so on. Once the location is clear, the names can be selected from real life by getting lists of names from that location or era. The Domesday book for Medieval England for instance, or lists of famous personalities of the time and place. This ensures that the names fit in with the surroundings.
     
  3. Alley
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    Alley Member

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    So, say, I'm working on a story that's set in the presence in a say late twenties peer group. So I could probably look up a certain countries baby names statistics for the period of time around the mid-80ies to find authentic names. But somehow they all seem fake, like the character isn't quite real (which, of course, it isn't - after all I'm making her up). I wonder if it might help me to root the character if instead of placing them in a hypothetical city (as I'm doing at the moment) I let her live in a city that is real and that I know.

    Do you reckon that might help? I'm afraid it might limit my imagination, but at the same time I'm feeling like I can't quite fill an entire hypothetical city with ideas of my own.
    Sorry, this maybe is a bit of a confused rant, but at the moment it really feels like my characters are half see-through, and I can't quite get a hold on them. Very very frustrating.
     
  4. Bryan Romer
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    Bryan Romer Contributing Member Contributor

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    Fictional cities require much more care and world creation. For a start I would stick to a real city. Large cities like London or New York have so much space and complexity that is easy to find a suitable location or even make up a fiction street or block.
     
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  5. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hmm. You can go multiple directions on this and there's not a right answer.

    In my main story, I use real places, but I've had to shift. Originally I had it set in New York City - but I've spent a total of 24 hours in New York in my life. New Yorkers in my writing group picked up immediately that I didn't know New York, and I eventually moved the main setting to Washington, DC - where I actually live. Putting it in Washington has allowed me to add a lot more color to the setting because I live there and know where everything is. I don't have to imagine it because my real world has don half of my worldbuilding for me.

    That said, I also set significant pieces of the story in places I've never been - right now my characters are in Rome, and I have a significant subplot set in Darwin, Australia (where I'm planning to go to grad school but haven't been yet). My best Rome sequences require a lot of time on Google Street View soaking in the visuals so that I can describe them - I've also looked at random things like climate data to make sure I get as much right as I can to cover the fact that, at the end of the day, I haven't been there. It generally works to a certain level. For a plotline I center in Appleton, Wisconsin, I've also contacted bloggers who focus on local issues in the real Appleton - and I use facebook to track the local TV news stations in both Appleton and Darwin. Obviously I'm a research nerd - but in the absence of actually going someplace, I've found I can get by learning as much as I can and watching a lot of video of locals.

    Imaginary settings can work too - in some cases I've found those to be easier because you can INVENT the local color, which saves time on research. That's really fun for me - but I'd say if you're in the real world, be in a real place.

    Rooting yourself in a real city can also help in terms of giving you information like what the characters do for a living, what the economic status of the people around them are, etc. I actually get ideas from stuff like that.
     
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  6. Alley
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    That's actually great input - thanks. :)

    Also your story line sounds very interesting. I hope I'll get to read more about it at some point.
     
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  7. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I've encountered this situation in my own writing. Fortunately my story is set more than 100 years ago, so I've got a bit of leeway. Writing in the modern day, using a location you've never visited, is a bit more tricky. However, there are also advantages ...mostly because of the Internet (and cheap flights!)

    Totally inventing a large city ...Metropolis! ...is one solution, but it removes authenticity from your story, and shunts it into fantasy territory. However, using a real location without doing tons of reseach can make you look pretty silly if you get it wrong—even little bits of it wrong.

    So research is the key, especially when you're using a real location. Visit the place if you can. Read everything you can get your hands on about what it's like to live there. The internet is a fantastic resource. You can use Street View to roam the streets and get an idea of how long it might take to get from A to B, and what you might see along the way. Study climate, seasons, etc. Listen to people who hail from there and pick up the kinds of things they say to each other, and the local accent as well. YouTube? Get hold of maps, etc. Really immerse yourself in the place. You can get away with making up characters and places they live if you use a big city location. Just try hard to make it as authentic as you can. Research is the only way to do this.

    If you're doing small town stuff, though ...it's certainly possible to make up a small town name and location. (I've set my story in Montana Territory, but most of the action takes place in a fictitious mountain range along a fictitious river near a fictitious small town. However, I've researched some 'real' locations as well. I won't know till it's published whether people will be annoyed at what I made up.)

    Might be an idea to site your fictitious locale somewhere that makes sense, but at least you can exercise your imagination without fear of upsetting anybody. Mind you, if you pick a REAL small town and plan to use its real name ...beware! You will get lots of people reading it because it's set in their home town, AND these people will be very quick to complain if you get any of it wrong, or cast aspersions on their favourite haunts or (god forbid) slander any of their good friends and relatives.

    This is a balancing act between winging it and compulsive fact-gathering—the kind that holds you back from actually writing at all. Good luck!
     
    Last edited: Mar 7, 2015
  8. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    My first novel is set partly in an imaginary middle-sized city in the American Midwest and partly in a mountainous (think Ozarks or Appalachians) rural district. Since I'm familiar with cities like that and most of the action takes place indoors, it wasn't hard for me to give a sketch picture of my town-- one or two major thoroughfares, the downtown, the art district, a park or two, an urban residential area, the suburbs . . .

    The hard part came when I could no longer call it "the city" and had to make up a name. Since Midwestern American cities often have names derived from Native American languages, it took a lot of online research (especially of Shawnee) to come up with something that had a logical etymology, reflected the settlement pattern of my imaginary site, and was also pronounceable. (At least, my one beta reader so far hasn't complained.) I picked Shawnee because those poor folks have been shoved across the middle tier of the Midwest from the eastern Ohio Valley to eastern Kansas and have left their place names behind all the way.

    With character names I decide what the predominant (European-African-American) immigration patterns might be and name to reflect them. In this case, a little English, some Irish, and a lot of German, many of them Jewish.

    I doubt I have the lay of the land right for the rural part. If I can I'll take a driving trip this summer to see what it really looks like, and revise my book accordingly.

    So @Alley, if you locate your imaginary town in the Midwestern US, you can use all the German names you please! Though keep in mind that during and after World War I a lot of German names got de-Germanized. So Kaiser became Kiser and Schaeffer shifted to Shafer and final n's in names ending
    -mann got dropped all over the place. And thus it is to this day.
     
    Last edited: Mar 8, 2015
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  9. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    I spent some time agonizing over the time and place I would set my story in, because the plot requires a very specific combination of technology and cultural norms. Each of the individual ingredients has existed somewhere at some time, but I could not find a time and place where they all existed together.

    Two basic challenges with technology:
    • The plot might rely on characters being able to do something, and they can only do it with technology or magic. (e.g. a character instantly sends information to a character thousands of miles away.)
    • The plot might rely on characters not being able to do something, and technology would enable them to do it. (e.g. an essential plot conflict only happens because one character knows something another character does not know, and it would be a very short and boring story if the ignorant character could just learn the information over the phone or on the internet.)
    Likewise with what the culture considers normal and abnormal, acceptable and unacceptable, etc.

    A plot is a game played between characters, and I could not find a ruleset in history that would facilitate the game I want the characters to play. So I made up my own rules. Which prevented me from placing the setting on the real globe.
     
    Last edited: Mar 8, 2015
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